The coconut oil backlash
Sales are booming. But increasing reports say this fave doesn’t live up to the hype
Put down the bliss ball: let’s nut this out
It’s in our bliss balls and raw vegan slices. It’s taken up permanent residence in our pantry. It splashes out of the jar during summer and magically goes rock-solid in winter. But is coconut oil really the wonder ingredient it’s cracked up to be?
Well, no, according to some experts. In June, the American Heart Association made headlines worldwide when it named coconut oil as an example of a foodie trend without science behind it. Oh.
Before we go into why, a little background on the clear stuff: “Coconut oil is the fat component of coconut flesh (copra),” explains nutritionist Teresa Boyce. “[It] can be obtained from crushing and pressing the copra to extract the oil.” Yep, the unrefined oil is free from nasty chemicals, which is a big bonus. But, while it doesn’t have scary ingredients, it does have a whole lot of saturated fat. In fact, sat fats make up a startling 92 per cent of coconut oil. Bottom line: that coco-rich bliss ball might not be so blissful for your heart.
“While coconut oil has been claimed as a superfood, the new report from the American Heart Association backs what the science has been saying for some time,” says Nicole Dynan, an accredited practising dietitian and spokesperson for the Dietitians Association of Australia. “We know coconut oil can raise our unhealthy LDL cholesterol, which raises the risk of heart disease.”
Break it down
Before you abandon your stash, coconut oil does have its good points. It may raise unhealthy LDL cholesterol, but it also slightly
increases the healthy HDL kind, too. This means it’s less worrying than your regs saturated fats. However, that doesn’t give us a free pass to slosh it around in our food, says Dynan. “There are much healthier oil choices around.” (She suggests extra virgin olive, avocado, canola and macadamia oils, which are low in sat fat and high in the healthy, unsaturated kind.)
So how much is too much? Aussie guidelines state that saturated fat should be less than 10 per cent of your total energy intake. So for an average adult, that’s less than
24g a day. One 20ml tablespoon of coconut oil? More than 18g of sat fat, which blitzes much of your intake in one tropical bite. By comparison, extra virgin olive oil has just 2.8g per tablespoon.
Coconut oil is also very energydense – we’re talking 720kj per tablespoon. (A heads-up: many other common cooking oils, such as canola and extra virgin olive, clock up similar kilojoule counts.)
Weighing it up
Of course, how much you eat depends on your lifestyle – you’ll have different needs to the woman next to you at the wholefood cafe. “[It] really is dependent on the individual: their health goals, health complaints and current nutrition status,” says Boyce. “I have patients who consume coconut oil several times a week, then I have fata-dapted athletes who consume it daily as a major fuel source.” Here’s the thing: we definitely shouldn’t be afraid of healthy fats – it’s just that experts are still debating whether this fat is actually all that healthy.
Another reason coconut oil has reached cult status? Google it to find plenty of pages proclaiming the benefits of the medium-chain triglycerides (MCTS) in it – essentially, the particular combination of fatty acids within coconut oil, which behave in a specific way in the body.
MCTS can certainly be a great workout buddy, says Boyce. “They exhibit health benefits including appetite reduction and weight loss, improved cognition, immune support, increased energy and improved athletic performance.”
However, Dynan argues that “much of the evidence used to support the health benefits of coconut comes from historical research on MCT oils. Advocates have relied on these findings, applying them to coconut oil, when in fact, coconut oil wasn’t used in the research.” This isn’t to say it
doesn’t have the claimed wellbeing benefits, it’s just the evidence is currently a bit thin on the ground.
Something the experts do agree on, though: coconut oil can be a delicious addition to a meal; plus it’s a great vegan ingredient for sweet treats. Beyond food, it’s an all-natural skin saviour, removing make-up and rehydrating like some sort of double-wonder wipe.
So should we just move the jar into our beauty cabinets instead? Not necessarily. “It’s like everything in nutrition; it’s about having a balanced approach,” says Boyce. “My tip is to consume saturated fats in moderation, as close to nature as possible and as a part of a balanced diet.” And that’s where coconut oil’s benefit really lies – it isn’t from a test tube, it’s from a tree. So there’s no need to trash it. Just save the bigger portions for your skin, not your stir-fry.